Working Overtime

These days, it seems we all have to work a little extra to get what we want. It's no different in pro hockey.

OT and shootout games are on the rise in the NHL. But is that good for the game?

Mike Richards, front, and the Philadelphia Flyers were one of the squads that benefitted from the extra point awarded to overtime losers last season. ((Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) )

These days, it seems we all have to work a little extra to get what we want. It's no different in pro hockey.

NHL players are working overtime like never before to earn their six-, seven- and eight-figure salaries. Through Friday, 89 of the 333 games (26.7 per cent) played this season required more than 60 minutes to decide a winner.

That's a notable increase from each of the three seasons following the 2004-05 lockout, when shootouts were introduced to settle contests still knotted through overtime. In those campaigns, the rate of games going to OT hovered between 22.1 and 22.8 per cent.

So what, right? More overtime equals more excitement. More fun. More hockey for your hard-earned (and, given the sickly state of the TSX, increasingly precious) dollars. Plus, you don't exactly see fans filing for the exits before the start of a shootout.

Sure. But, like a weeknight at the bar, tonight's jubilation can come at tomorrow's expense. The NHL's dirty secret is that its policy of awarding the losers of overtime and shootout games a point in the standings — hockey's answer to the participant's ribbon — may end up costing your team a chance at the Stanley Cup.

"The overtime or shootout losses aren't nearly as hurtful as the other ones," says Marc Crawford, the former Colorado Avalanche and L.A. Kings coach who's now an analyst for Hockey Night in Canada. "They still sting, and you still go away with a bad feeling, but not nearly as much as if you've lost outright."

For proof, look back no further than last spring's playoff race. And pity poor Carolina. The Hurricanes received a league-low six "loser" points in 2007-08 and finished in the dreaded ninth spot in the Eastern Conference, a mere two points out of the final post-season berth.

If hockey did what every other major pro sport does and gave its tiebreaker losers what they deserve — nothing — then Carolina would have made the playoffs. Not only that, the 'Canes would've earned the No. 5 seed. So instead of thinking about tee times in mid-April, Rod Brind'Amour and company could've been figuring out a way to get past the beatable New Jersey Devils in the first round.

2007-08 Eastern Conference standings     
 Team WinsLosses OT/SO lossesPoints
 1. Montreal* 47 25 10 104
 2. Pittsburgh* 47 27 8 102
 3. Washington* 43 31 8 94
 4. New Jersey 46 29 7 99
 5. New York Rangers 42 27 13 97
 6. Philadelphia 42 29 11 95
 7. Ottawa 43 31 8 94
 8. Boston 41 29 12 94
 9. Carolina  43 33 6 92
 *division winner    

 2007-08 Eastern Conference standings with OT/SO losses worth 0 points   
 Team Wins Losses Points
 1. Montreal* 47 35 94
 2. Pittsburgh* 47 35 94
 3. Washington* 43 39 86
 4. New Jersey 46 36 92
 5. Carolina 43 39 86
 6. Ottawa 43 39 86
 7. New York Rangers 42 40 84
 8. Philadelphia 42 40 84
 9. Boston  41 41 82
 *division winner   

You don't have to be from Raleigh to shake your head at the pretzel logic here. Sports are meant to be zero-sum games, but the NHL has decided that a contest worth two points in the standings should suddenly grow into a three-pointer (a 50 per cent increase in value) just because neither side could put the other away in the allotted time.

Not that the suits at the league office don't have their reasons. The guaranteed-point system is meant to discourage teams from playing it safe in overtime. Perhaps that's working, but what about the third period of close games, when it seems some teams are going into Maginot line mode in an effort to ensure themselves at least a point?

Crawford has noticed that today's more conservative bench bosses — Jacques Lemaire of the Minnesota Wild to name one — see the value of playing it safe when the game is tied and the clock ticking down.

"We've been in the three-point game era now for a few years, so coaches are much more comfortable with the fact that they want to get games into overtime now. They want to get the point and take their chances trying to get the bonus point in overtime."

That, says Crawford, can lead to some up tight play in the final period.

"You generally will take more risks early in the game, but you'll adhere to structure in the third."

Flyers assistant coach Joe Mullen knows first-hand how important those single points can be. Last season, his team picked up 11 of them — only five teams had more — to move up to sixth place in the Eastern Conference and earn a favourable first-round matchup with Washington, the weakest of the division champions.

"Those points mean so much," says the New Yorker, who scored 502 goals during a stellar NHL career that predated the current system by almost a decade. "They could mean the difference between a playoff spot and not making the playoffs."

But is Mullen a fan of the loser points?

"I am when we get 'em," he chuckles. "When you're giving them up you're not really a fan of them, but that's the way the game goes."

Crawford shares that pragmatist's view. (Don't bother asking an NHL coach, former or current, to criticize league policy.) He also suggests that the increase in overtime games is  a byproduct of the game's evolution.

"You've got to have a good defensive structure, you have to have great goaltending, and you have to have a team that's committed to not making mistakes," Crawford says. "More often than not, that's the norm today in the National Hockey League. There aren't a lot of teams that open it up."

And don't expect to see a more freewheeling style as everyone settles into the heart of their regular-season schedules.

"I think you're going to see closer games because everybody is comfortable with how they're playing now," Crawford says. "At the start of the season, people are still working through the kinks in their game, but now they're very comfortable with it. I find there are more games with less mistakes now than at the beginning of the season."

In other words, get ready for more OT. And maybe more craziness in the standings.